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Rain can’t dampen impact of MLK Park upgrade

A lot was happening at Martin Luther King Jr. Park over the weekend.

The Juneteenth Festival, commemorating the emancipation of slaves in the Confederate South, wrapped up Sunday. The festival also coincided with the opening of the $4.5 million splash pad for the summer.

But perhaps the three brand new shelters near the park casino were the biggest draw Sunday afternoon as persistent rains drenched the area.

“I’m just glad they’re here,” said Irma Johnson, who got caught in a downpour with her three children and huddled under one of the new shelters. During a break in the rainfall, she went back to pushing daughter Ananda on one of the four swings in the park’s new playground.

The shelters and playground are part of $2.7 million in City of Buffalo improvements to the Olmsted-designed park.

“It is an ongoing part of our strategic plan and vision to improve that neighborhood, recognizing that historic MLK Park is an important center for that community and the city,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said Sunday.

In addition to the shelters and playground are new basketball courts behind the casino. The $200,000 courts were christened Saturday by the Girls Sports Foundation.

The group is just one of several leagues that already are scheduled to use the courts, said Buffalo Public Works Commissioner Steven Stepniak.

Other improvements included refurbishing the inside of the large shelter building across from the splash pad at a cost of $800,000, Stepniak said.

Upgrades to the MLK Casino carried a price tag of $660,000 for work including a new roof, new windows and doors, Stepniak said.

Phase II of the park upgrade, which begins in the fall, will include a new community room, new bathrooms and upgraded electrical, plumbing and heating systems – at a cost of $718,000, Stepniak said.

He also mentioned that Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy provided $50,000 to refurbish historical steps on one of the paths.

The latest improvements come in the wake of the park’s $4.5 million water feature that offers ice skating in winter and a splash pad in summer. Beginning June 26 through Labor Day, the splash pad will be open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Sunday’s rains did not keep people from enjoying the park’s newest amenities, or away from the Juneteenth Festival that is an annual park attraction, although the weather did thin out the crowds.

Ariyana Tabb and her cousin Carmen Haskins, both 9, waited for a break in the rain to enjoy the festival with their grandmother, who brought them. Each got her face painted – a butterfly for Ariyana, a cat for Carmen.

Meanwhile, 12-year-old Ashante Sweat, 13-year-old Dinah Hampton and her 11-year-old sister, Zion, were on their way to help out at the Aviance Boutique & Hair tent. They had come the day before to celebrate Zion’s birthday.

“I had a good time. There was more people,” she said.

Some vendors felt the same way. As many were weathering the storm Sunday, others were packing up by 3 p.m.

“Yesterday was so nice,” Jacquelyn Robinson said of Saturday’s crowd that came to the park and stopped by the Essential Extensions tent of the Cheektowaga store where she works.

Sunday was a much different story.

“Not many people; very dull, very slow,” Robinson said. “We thought it would pick up after church, but church let out and people didn’t come.”

Donna Bailey was calling it a day, too.

The day before, she was located near the bounce house and wasn’t having much success selling women’s jewelry and apparel.

“I only had kids with no money,” she said of the visitors to her booth until she moved closer to Best Street around 5 p.m. Saturday.

That’s when business picked up, she said.

But by Sunday afternoon business had slowed considerably, she said.

“I had 40 sales yesterday,” Bailey said. “And only about six or seven today.”